Airwallex raises $200M at a $4B valuation to double down on business banking

Business, now more than ever before, is going digital, and today a startup that’s building a vertically integrated solution to meet business banking needs is announcing a big round of funding to tap into the opportunity. Airwallex — which provides business banking services both directly to businesses themselves, as well as via a set of APIs that power other companies’ fintech products — has raised $200 million, a Series E round of funding that values the Australian startup at $4 billion.

Lone Pine Capital is leading the round, with new backers G Squared and Vetamer Capital Management, and previous backers 1835i Ventures (formerly ANZi), DST Global, Salesforce Ventures and Sequoia Capital China, also participating.

The funding brings the total raised by Airwallex — which has head offices in Hong Kong and Melbourne, Australia — to date to $700 million, including a $100 million injection that closed out its Series D just six months ago.

Airwallex will be using the funding both to continue investing in its product and technology, as well as to continue its geographical expansion and to focus on some larger business targets. The company has started to make some headway into Europe and the UK and that will be one big focus, along with the U.S.

The quick succession of funding, and that rising valuation, underscore Airwallex’s traction to date around what CEO and co-founder Jack Zhang describes as a vertically integrated strategy.

That involves two parts. First, Airwallex has built all the infrastructure for the business banking services that it provides directly to businesses with a focus on small and medium enterprise customers. Second, it has packaged up that infrastructure into a set of APIs that a variety of other companies use to provide financial services directly to their customers without needing to build those services themselves — the so-called “embedded finance” approach.

“We want to own the whole ecosystem,” Zhang said to me. “We want to be like the Apple of business finance.”

That seems to be working out so far for Airwallex. Revenues were up almost 150% for the first half of 2021 compared to a year before, with the company processing more than US$20 billion for a global client portfolio that has quadrupled in size. In addition to tens of thousands of SMEs, it also, via APIs, powers financial services for other companies like GOAT, Papaya Global and Stake.

Airwallex got its start like many of the strongest startups do: it was built to solve a problem that the founders encountered themselves. In the case of Airwallex, Zhang tells me he had actually been working on a previous start-up idea. He wanted to build the “Blue Bottle Coffee” of Asia out of Hong Kong, and it involved buying and importing a lot of different materials, packaging and of course coffee from all around the world.

“We found that making payments as a small business was slow and expensive,” he said, since it involved banks in different countries and different banking systems, manual efforts to transfer money between them and many days to clear the payments. “But that was also my background — payments and trading — and so I decided that it was a much more fascinating problem for me to work on and resolve.”

Eventually one of his co-founders in the coffee effort came along, with the four co-founders of Airwallex ultimately including Zhang, along with Xijing Dai, Lucy Liu and Max Li.

It was 2014, and Airwallex got attention from VCs early on in part for being in the right place at the right time. A wave of startups building financial services for SMBs were definitely gaining ground in North America and Europe, filling a long-neglected hole in the technology universe, but there was almost nothing of the sort in the Asia Pacific region, and in those earlier days solutions were highly regionalized.

From there it was a no-brainer that starting with cross-border payments, the first thing Airwallex tackled, would soon grow into a wider suite of banking services involving payments and other cross-border banking services.

“In last 6 years, we’ve built more than 50 bank integrations and now offer payments 95 countries payments through a partner network,” he added, with 43 of those offering real-time transactions. From that, it moved on the bank accounts and “other primitive stuff” with card issuance and more, he said, eventually building an end-to-end payment stack. 

Airwallex has tens of thousands of customers using its financial services directly, and they make up about 40% of its revenues today. The rest is the interesting turn the company decided to take to expand its business.

Airwallex had built all of its technology from the ground up itself, and it found that — given the wave of new companies looking for more ways to engage customers and become their one-stop shop — there was an opportunity to package that tech up in a set of APIs and sell that on to a different set of customers, those who also provided services for small businesses. That part of the business now accounts for 60% of Airwallex’s business, Zhang said, and is growing faster in terms of revenues. (The SMB business is growing faster in terms of customers, he said.)

A lot of embedded finance startups that base their business around building tech to power other businesses tend to stay arm’s length from offering financial services directly to consumers. The explanation I have heard is that they do not wish to compete against their customers. Zhang said that Airwallex takes a different approach, by being selective about the customers they partner with, so that the financial services they offer would never be the kind that would not be in direct competition. The GOAT marketplace for sneakers, or Papaya Global’s HR platform are classic examples of this.

However, as Airwallex continues to grow, you can’t help but wonder whether one of those partners might like to gobble up all of Airwallex and take on some of that service provision role itself. In that context, it’s very interesting to see Salesforce Ventures returning to invest even more in the company in this round, given how widely the company has expanded from its early roots in software for salespeople into a massive platform providing a huge range of cloud services to help people run their businesses.

For now, it’s been the combination of its unique roots in Asia Pacific, plus its vertical approach of building its tech from the ground up, plus its retail acumen that has impressed investors and may well see Airwallex stay independent and grow for some time to come.

“Airwallex has a clear competitive advantage in the digital payments market,” said David Craver, MD at Lone Pine Capital, in a statement. “Its unique Asia-Pacific roots, coupled with its innovative infrastructure, products and services, speak volumes about the business’ global growth opportunities and its impressive expansion in the competitive payment providers space. We are excited to invest in Airwallex at this dynamic time, and look forward to helping drive the company’s expansion and success worldwide.”

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Sneaker marketplace GOAT hits $3.7 billion valuation in Series F raise

Sneaker and streetwear empire GOAT just doubled its valuation in a massive new raise.

The GOAT Group parent company shared today that it has raised $195 million in a Series F raise valuing the fashion giant at some $3.7 billion. The raise was led by a handful of hedge funds and P/E firms including Park West Asset Management, Franklin Templeton, Adage Capital Management, Ulysses Management and funds & accounts advised by T. Rowe Price Associates.

GOAT has surgically defined a corner of fashion commerce outside of Amazon’s purview while growing the appeal of street wear and sneakers to a broader audience of consumers. GOAT Group has now raised just shy of $500 million in total.

This round more than doubles the $1.8 billion valuation GOAT Group reached in its Series E fundraise last year. Like other online marketplaces, GOAT saw major growth last year, expanding its audience of buyers and sellers while seeing 100% year-over-year growth in its sneaker business and 500% year-over-year growth for its newer apparel business.

GOAT details some 30 million “members” and 600,000 sellers across its platform. In a press release, the company detailed its peer-to-peer marketplace has reached some $2 billion in gross merchandise volume.

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Sneaker enthusiast group SoleSavy raises $2M, setting the stage for a community-driven commerce boom

SoleSavy, a community built around buying hot sneakers and related items that are increasingly hard to acquire at retail, raised $2M in a round that closed late last year. SoleSavy is a group of communities that is currently mostly hosted on Slack. 

SoleSavy’s co-founders Dejan Pralica and Justin Dusanj founded the company in 2018 as a paid community for collectors and enthusiasts seeking pairs that were getting snapped up by bots or resellers. Pralica previously co-founded Kicks Deals, a sneaker shipping site focused on less than retail pricing and Dusanj is the former Director of Operations at New Age Sports, a Nike retailer. 

SoleSavy’s $2M party raise includes investment from Panache Ventures, Jason Calacanis’ LAUNCH, Turner Novak, Ben Narasin, Morning Brew’s Alex Liberman and Austin Rief, Tiny Capital, Wesley Pentz (yes, Diplo), Matthew Hauri aka Yung Gravy, Ryan Holmes, Roham Gharegozlou and Bedrock Capital.

SoleSavy has built an engaged community (several communities, really) around the ebb and flow of the sneakerhead consumer universe (SCU). I just coined that, by the way, please make it a thing. The SCU is an interesting place filled with fascinating characters and behaviors. Every once in a while it pokes its head into the mainstream, whether via a documentary, a hot shoe release or a stron-garm robbery attempt. In 2021, I believe that we will see more of this world breaking out of its box into the larger consumer consciousness. 

The trends that are leading us to this place are varied, but some of them have been front and center during the pandemic, as a decade’s worth of consumer behavioral change has occurred in the space of a few months. You only have to look at how hard it was to get a PS5 or Xbox One X or a GPU for the holiday season, and how many services, Twitter accounts and monitor groups rose up to try to help people do that to see what the future of shopping looks like. 

I joked about not being able to buy butter without a bot, but it’s not far from the truth — nearly every category of goods has had its own shortages over the last year. But the mother of all limited goods category for decades now has been sneakers. 

Every release is hotly anticipated and eagerly purchased by people looking for the latest shoe. The massive increase in interest in the sneaker as the marquee desirable item and the unwillingness of the biggest manufacturers to lose the hype halo has led to each drop being harder to get than the last. Second-market startups like StockX and GOAT have sprung up to facilitate those who don’t mind paying 30%-200% premiums on each release. 

The solution for many lies in the countless ‘cook groups’ that help buyers anticipate demand and stock for each drop and plan to purchase them on release date. 

SoleSavy’s function is ostensibly to do just that: help regular enthusiasts to strategize and execute the release day cop. But beyond that, Pralica says that the group has come to be about the community of people around those shoes more than the purchase itself. 

SoleSavy is at its heart a slack group (a series of groups actually that act as cohorts, leading people through the tiers of community that the team has built) with rooms that help people to understand what’s happening in sneakers, get the releases and commiserate around the culture. Pralica says that they’ve built that community out slowly (the waitlist for the group grows by 400 people per day) in order to maintain a positive atmosphere and to properly onboard new people to the group. They also have an app that drives push notifications and a podcast. 

That positive community vibe is what Pralica says is SoleSavy’s long-term focus and differentiating factor that keeps the 4,000 members across the US and Canada interacting with the group on a nearly daily basis.

I’ve been in a dozen or so different groups focused on buying large quantities of each release to re-sell over the years and many of them are, at best, rowdy and at worst toxic. That’s an environment that SoleSavy wanted to stay away from, says Pralica. Instead, SoleSavy tries to court those who want to buy and wear the shoes, trade them and yes, maybe even resell personal pairs eventually to obtain and wear another grail.

Though cook groups have been the ‘core’ of the Discord and Slack-based communities in the sneaker world, other iterations have been booming too. Entrepreneurial communities based in the same hustle principles like Tyler Blake’s In This Economy and fanbase-focused groups around popular streamers top the Disboard. And bets on social token outfits like Zora are also focused on community as the glue that holds together a user base. 

Community is the future of all commerce, whether you’re looking for a specific product (see the huge PS5 monitors) or want to steep yourself in a particular universe of product interest (the SCU). The trends that I’ve been seeing all point to 2021 being the year that community-driven purchasing breaks out of the underbelly of fandom and becomes officially “a thing”.

SoleSavy has been experimenting with a variety of ways to keep the community knit going including live chats, get togethers and even a handsome custom community-designed Jordan 1. These efforts have driven the previously bootstrapped company to some impressive early numbers. Pralica says that SoleSavy is currently profitable, with $1.5M ARR on $33 monthly subscriptions plus affiliate revenue and that their DAUs are at 90% — an engagement number that would make any retailer salivate. 

Though the funding closed (very) late last year I thought that this would be a great kick off story for the year ahead. Though SoleSavy seems to have a really compelling story and a great growth curve, I think they’re at the tip of a very large trend, one that we will see continue to build throughout the year. 

 

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